Have spare time? Here’s what to see in San Francisco

I’m writing this in anticipation for the annual Online News Association conference, but I could be writing this for anyone who is in town with some extra time on their hands. ONA folks should be sure to read “Your ONA12 insider’s guide to San Francisco” before this, and other visitors to this post, well, be sure to read the “Things to know about San Francisco” and the “Here’s what I will not endorse” sections.

Because below is what I will happily endorse.

Most of the shorter recommendations are assuming you’re based in the Embarcadero or Financial District area, but otherwise, this will be my evergreen post I point to when I want to recommend things to do in San Francisco. Things in highlights are my highlights. If you do nothing else, be sure you do those.

So: How much time do you have in SF?

Can only spare an extra hour:

  • Walk the waterfront and explore the Ferry Building, which is the big building thing with the clock tower. There’s markets and shops and restaurants, and if you’re there on the weekends, you can partake in a top-notch farmers market. Plus, there’s a lovely view of the Bay Bridge. Wave to Berkeley and Oakland across the Bay while you’re at it.

Can only spare two hours:

  • If you’ve never been to SF before and don’t have any other opportunity to see it, take a cab (and a coat) and go see the Golden Gate Bridge. I love the view from Crissy Field. Warning: At any time it may be too foggy to see anything, which might still be a beautiful sight.
  • Already seen the bridge? Wander around North Beach and Chinatown. Just walk to the Transamerica Pyramid and walk up the diagonal street, Columbus Ave. (There’s even walking tours every Sunday and Monday nights.)
  • If you’re too hungry to aimlessly meander, go to the 16th Street Mission BART stop and get a Mission burrito, a tourist attraction in themselves. My standby place by the BART is Pancho Villa Taqueria.  You should have a Mission burrito at least once during any visit to SF.

Can only spare three hours:

  • Go to City Lights bookstore in North Beach, buy a book and begin reading it over a drink in Vesuvio across the Jack Kerouac Alley. It’s where he and other famous Beat authors got their start. (This block is probably my favorite place in San Francisco, and I’m not all that into Beat poetry.)
  • Take a cable car. It is worth doing at least once, even if it is touristy. The cable car line that starts in front of the hotel isn’t crowded, but it also isn’t quite as amazing as the Powell-Hyde line. Try the Powell-Hyde line in the morning or at stops other than Powell and Market to beat the crowds. (Here’s a map in animated gif form!)
  • The Filbert Street steps and/or Coit Tower. I’m a totally out-of-shape human being, and I still enjoyed this walk up the steps to the tower, though I did have to stop often. The views are worth it. If you’re not fully mobile or are running out of time, there’s buses that go to the top of Telegraph Hill.
  • Take the Sausalito ferry (here’s the schedule), have a coffee somewhere there and take some pictures of the SF skyline. The ferry leaves next to Sinbad’s Restaurant right behind the Ferry Building. How apt.
  • Noisebridge. OK, this is not standard tourist fare. Some may be offended I list them as a “tourist destination.” But if you identify as a geek or a hacker, you need to check this hackerspace out and maybe take a class. It’s part electronics lab, shop class, craft room, hackathon and library all rolled into one. It’s open to the public any day, 24 hours a day. It is a bit chaotic, so be sure you arrive when someone can give you an orientation.

I have an extra half a day:

  • Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. That is a must-do. There’s even a treasure hunt if you want to play along. But please, please, bring a strong jacket.
  • If you’ve walked the bridge before, walk Land’s End, which in my opinion has the city’s most stunning views of the bridge.
  • If you can book it in advance, Alcatraz. This is the one thing I’ve heard is worth splurging on, but I’ve never been. Tours are usually sold out if you try to book the day of. Especially weekend tours. In fact, if you want to go, I’ll totally go with you.
  • Golden Gate Park. You need a minimum of a half a day to explore this giant park, and probably my favorite park in the country. Rent a bike or roller skates, visit the top-notch museums, see the different themed gardens, stumble on random Sunday concerts, walk through the park all the way to the ocean… there is too much to do, and you could probably sink a full day here.
  • There’s nothing like people watching and window shopping on Haight/Ashbury, where tourists, aging hippies, the homeless and the colorful crazies all hang out. Eat at the Squat & Gobble Crepery. Go to Amoeba Records, one of the largest independent music and DVD shops you’ve ever seen. Then go to KidRobot and Cheap Thrills to buy quirky and fun pop-culture relics.
  • Hell, pick a neighborhood and have at it!
  • Go view-hunting. Grab a camera and hit up the spots where you can see the entire city. Here’s a great rundown on the best views in SF.
  • My guilty pleasure: You may have your Full House house (which I highly discourage) if I can have my hop-on, hop-off bus tours. I like knowing the history and stories behind places, and I was genuinely entertained by the tour I took. Several companies depart from Union Square. I can’t for the life of me tell you which company is better. Just pick one!

I have an extra evening open:

I have an extra day or two:

  • Build any combination of the above into your own itinerary.
  • Explore the museums of your choice. I highly recommend spending a full day at the Exploratorium. Like Alcatraz, if you want to go, I’ll totally go with you. For art, the SFMOMA is hugely popular, for good reasons. But I also love the smaller, quirkier museums like the Musée Mécanique, which houses turn-of-the-century mechanical arcade games. It costs if you want to play the games, but otherwise it’s free admission, unlike most museums in SF.
  • If you didn’t get to squeeze Golden Gate Park into half a day, you can easily sink a full day in the museums and gardens and activities there.
  • Visited SF before and want something different? Come on over and explore the East Bay! We don’t bite. Check out downtown Berkeley or Telegraph Ave., or in Oakland see Jack London Square, downtown or Piedmont. All are vibrant neighborhoods worthy of a visit.

Any more than that:

Invest in a guidebook, smartypants! I find Frommer’s has good 1-, 2- and 3-day agendas here. There’s also a fairly good SF information center at the Powell Street BART. I can also personally recommend San Francisco Free and Dirt Cheap, which helped me a little in writing this post.

I hope that helps you figure out your plans! This is my favorite city in the nation, so I’m honored to get to live close enough to it to be a “local” by default. But as you could tell, even I haven’t done everything I’m recommending (like Alcatraz!). I would love to explore even more.

I’m planning on it!

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